Feeding the New World a Taste of the Old
Since 1948 Helga and James Pearson's family business--Lutz Continental Cafe & Pastry Shop--has consistently created some of the finest German tortes, pastries, and cakes in the city. But as the Pearsons lead their thriving business into the new century, they're faced with the reality that there is no heir apparent. "The young people, they don't want to learn it anymore," says Helga. "I hope we can figure out something in the future."
Fred Lutz, Helga's father, apprenticed at the Lutz bakery in Altensteig, on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany. There, in the heart of the Black Forest, Lutz honed a craft that had been a part of his family since 1784. He moved to Chicago shortly after World War I and immediately found a job working in a bakery near Armitage and Leavitt. In 1948, he and his wife, Mariele, opened their own bakery at Montrose and Campbell, where it stands today.
"At that time, there was a bakery on every block," says Helga. "All the immigrants from Germany, Yugoslavia, and Austria were coming over, and my mother realized they were used to light cakes, not the sweet ones the Americans liked."
Back then, Lutz Cafe was a tiny retail bakery with a handful of authentic tortes and pastries. The recipes came directly from the legendary Cafe Schuler, in Bad Tolz, Germany, where Mariele Lutz had trained. After moving to the U.S., she returned there often to see family and friends, and made a point of visiting the bakery, always asking the owner for some of his recipes for delicious fruit kuchen and Schwarzwalder (Black Forest cake). "Back then you had to be 300 miles away to get those recipes," recalls Helga. "My mother was already living in America, so the owner gladly translated them for her."
That Helga would succeed her parents was never in doubt--she remembers cutting doilies and folding cake boxes as a nine-year-old. "There was no such thing as not doing anything," she says. "I used to get two pennies for cleaning a quart of strawberries. I realized if I gave a penny to a friend of mine to help out, I could get through more quarts and make more money...even then I was already a businesswoman."
Helga married James Pearson, a construction worker who reluctantly quit his job and came over to the bakery to help out. In 1962 they expanded into the space next door, opening a small cafe with just four tables. "In Europe people would go to the Konditorei, or pastry shop, between three and five o'clock each day for coffee and cake," says James. "We knew we had something here, with all the European immigrants that were moving into the area."
Just two years later, the Pearsons expanded again, taking over an adjacent cleaner's and shoe store, adding more tables both inside and out, and creating one of the city's most idyllic spots for outdoor dining. Ivy-covered walls rise some 25 feet on all sides of the garden, which contains a tiny pool with a cherubic statue in the middle. The nearby garage has been turned into an office and the exterior has been remodeled to resemble a Bavarian home. Dozens of geraniums, daisies, and impatiens line the walls, splashing the garden with a variety of colors.
At the same time the cafe's menu also expanded. Instead of just sandwiches and tea, the Pearsons started offering customers heartier dishes like Kšnigin Pastete (queen's pate)--a pastry shell stuffed with veal that's been sauteed in white wine, sour cream, and mushroom sauce--as well as herring, crepes, and Hungarian goulash.
But it's the desserts that have garnered Lutz a global reputation--the bakery regularly fields calls from out of state and now ships baked goods and some of the truffles internationally. Brandy mousse, one of the bakery's signature sweets, is a complex affair: six layers of yellow cake lightly drizzled with brandy and sandwiched between five layers of chocolate mousse. The cake is light, the butter cream is rich, and just as they say, it's not too sweet. Another Old World creation is the Gugelhupf, a traditional afternoon tea cake. The Lutz version contains lemon zest, white raisins, and almonds to give it some texture.
Inside the giant pastry cases at the front of the cafe, a dozen or so slices of tortes, two-foot-long pound cakes, and homemade cookies don't help decision making. To the right, another case is full of handmade candies, including Belgian chocolate truffles, and marzipan figurines resembling Bavarian dachshunds and bears.
"We're lucky with our genes," says Helga, who shows no sign of having grown up around all that butter and cream. "I eat cakes almost every day, but since we're on our feet always, I guess that helps."
The question of succession comes up, and both owners shake their heads. Over the last few years, five longtime pastry chefs have retired. The Pearsons have only one daughter, who studied at Cafe Schuler like her grandmother and worked at the bakery for six years, but is now studying to be a physician's assistant. "The business may have burned her out too young," admits James. "But the 14- to 18-hour days are over for us. We're now taking Sundays off, and there's no one in the family left to take it over....I hope eventually someone would buy it. [Helga's] dad would roll over in his grave if she was just gonna give it up."
Lutz Continental Cafe & Pastry Shop is at 2458 W. Montrose, 773-478-7785, www.lutzcafe.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.